The PGCE Computer Science trainee teachers recently made a visit to The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park. The day was organised so that the trainee teachers would be aware of the different sections of the museum when planning trips for their pupils. The guided tour started by showing how Bletchley was able to break the codes of the Lorenz encrypted messages that were sent in World War II. The world’s first electronic computer, Colossus has been fully restored and could be seen working. Modern computers have been designed to multitask and run several different programs at once whereas Colossus was made for a single purpose: to decipher the encrypted messages. The machine managed to crack the code in 3 ½ hours – a modern PC would have managed it in 46 seconds!
We looked at the time before computers and some of the historical calculating devices were ingenious works of art. There was an abacus, a slide rule and calculators with red LED digits from the 1970s – remember those?
The tour continued to the mainframe gallery showing computers from the 1950s through to the 1970s. The disc drives were as big as washing machines. This is where the trainee teachers were able to use a punched tape machine to write out their name. Although this antiquated method of data entry was slow, it was somehow much more satisfying than typing in information using a modern keyboard – perhaps it was the novelty value of the experience that was most compelling.
As we wandered through the galleries, it was a bit like travelling through our own histories. There were BBC micros, the Sinclair ZX80 and the Amstrad 1512. There was a timeline for all of the classic machines, leading up to the modern smart phone that we all take for granted.
The visit was a great success and like all the best school trips, we chatted about it in the minibus on the way home and all felt that it wouldn’t be long before we visited it again.